US government conference spending on upward trend
US government conference spending on upward trend
19 OCTOBER 2017 8:38 AM

STR’s report on U.S. government conference spending for fiscal year 2016 shows that it has continued to increase following a sharp decline in 2013. 

HENDERSONVILLE, Tennessee—Federal conference spending surged ahead in fiscal year 2016, continuing the trend of recovery after a sharp decline in 2013, when there was a 62% drop.

In 2012, the Office of Management and Budget issued Memorandum M-12-12, which requires all federal agencies to publicly list conferences costing more than $100,000 of taxpayer funds. Since 2013, spending has slowly been creeping back up, with the largest surge over the past four cycles seen in 2016.

Federal agencies are not required to report on their spending on meetings of less than $100,000. The results we have compiled are limited to the most expensive conferences.

For this report, we gathered all of the available data for fiscal year 2016—covering the meetings ranging from 1 October 2015 to 30 September 2016. A few key findings from our analysis include:

  • From 2015 to 2016, spending rose by $47.5 million, an increase of nearly 37%.
  • Total spending has now risen back to about 60% of the spending in 2012, the same year the federal government issued Memorandum M-12-12.
  • In 2016, the total federal conference expenditure was $177,162,798 on 579 conferences with an estimated 194,000 attendees.
  • The average federal conference in 2016 (costing $100,000 or more) had 336 attendees and cost an average of $305,980.
  • Washington, D.C., remains the most popular location for federal conferences.

Having collected the conference expenditure reports for every fiscal year from 2012 onward, we are able to track conference spending since the year M-12-12 was announced. Our data shows that among the top 19 federal organizations, reported spending continues to rise after dropping in 2013. After a modest increase of only 1.5% from 2014 to 2015—total spending increased by more than a third in 2016.

Unsurprisingly, the top three departments in terms of spending remained the same as in previous years. The combined spending by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Department of Defense (DOD) account for a staggering 65% of the total spending out of all 19 departments studied. In fiscal year 2016, HHS leapt to the front of the pack with $44.1 million in spending, which is up from $16.4 million in 2015—a 170% increase. Additionally, the Department of Justice (DOJ) took the fourth spot, trailing behind the top three by a fair margin. The DOJ has held this position in every year studied except for 2014.

VA took the top spot in terms of highest cost per conference—almost $450,000 for the average conference, which is down from their average $576,000 last year. HHS took second place for this metric—$394,000 for its average conference—and the Department of State was third-highest with $339,000 per conference held in 2016. The DOD held the most conferences in fiscal year 2016 with a total of 115, and perhaps appropriately the Department of the Treasury spent the least on their conferences, landing an average cost of $125,000.

By examining the top three departments’ spending over time and combining the remaining 16 departments, we gain further insight into the overall spending trends over the past five years. After the nosedive in conference expenditures between 2012 and 2013, the overall drift has been an increase in spending over time. The exception is the Department of Health and Human Services, which saw a steady decline in spending until fiscal year 2016. It appears that the sizable boost in HHS spending this past year—combined with the remaining departments pushing upwards as well—are the key factors leading to the 37% spending increase across the board. 

Up until 2016, the only other departments besides HHS that had shown a steady decline were the Department of Education and the Department of Commerce. During this past cycle, these two departments bucked this trend with a modest 19% boost from the Department of Education—about $4 million spent on the year—and a much more notable 450% increase for the Department of Commerce—up from $470,000 to $2.6 million. A handful of departments spent significantly less in 2016 than in 2015: the Department of Energy (-33%), the Social Security Administration (-26%), the Department of the Treasury (-60%) and the Department of Transportation (-58%).

The numbers on attendance at these conferences are somewhat less reliable, as certain departments post their figures as estimations—or appear to exclude the number of non-departmental employees present—but our best guess puts the total number of attendees in 2016 at around 194,000 people. HHS netted the most attendees of any department at nearly 53,000, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had the lowest with 326 attendees. Similarly, HUD also had the lowest attendance rate with about 47 people at their seven conferences accounted for. The Department of the Interior technically had the highest average attendance, but this is chiefly due to one huge 20,000-person conference under their supervision called BioDiscovery in Washington, D.C.

Unsurprisingly, Washington once again is the most popular site for federal conferences by far, chosen for 88 of the 579 conferences held in 2016. In fact, if you include the surrounding suburbs and other adjacent cities in Virginia and Maryland, the greater D.C. area accounts for over 30% of all large federal conferences held last year. Also of note is that Bangkok, Thailand, was the most common overseas meeting site, with meetings hosted by the DOJ, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State.

As federal conference spending has surged ahead after a drastic drop in 2013, we will look to 2017 federal department budgets to report on conference spending trends as soon as they are released early next year. Stay tuned for a follow-up report in Q2 2018.

This article represents an interpretation of data collected by STR, parent company of HNN. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.

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